We rural people share a common understanding when it comes to our young: that it is essential for them to leave home after high school, to go away to college or work. This understanding comes from witnessing the stagnation of those who stay, the narrowed horizons and expectations, the dead-end life goals and plans.
Those who grow up here in Tahoe often do return, having seen what’s “out there,” and preferring what they know here. It then is a choice for something, rather than an absence of choice based on ignorance. Unsurprisingly, these “returnees” seem to find greater happiness and purpose than those who have never left.
A Rite of Passage?
The trouble for Catholics arises in that we often come to view our children’s faith journey in similar terms—almost condoning their choice to drift away from the faith we have guided them in forming. After all, many of us did the same thing—stopped attending mass with our parents, stopped practicing the sacraments on a regular basis, rationalizing our choices in myriad ways. When you’re young and impatient, when you find attending mass a chore, it requires only the smallest excuse to drift away. There are plenty of Christian assemblies around to provide the stimulation as well as the ready-made critiques of the Catholic faith and they do an admirable job of reaching out to our young people; and to be fair, we Catholics have provided our young with plenty of excuses to grow disinterested. So when our young adults stray, we are not greatly surprised or alarmed. Perhaps we offer up a prayer for their eventual return—that the Holy Spirit will lead them home; perhaps we lament the lack of programs and services aimed at retaining our young adults; but that’s usually as far as it goes.
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And when our own children begin to drift, we accept it as our cross to bear, rather than pushing the child away from the Church even further. Without exception, it seems, we parents opt to avoid the tyranny of forced attendance, clinging to the hope that our children will one day return of their own volition.
What the Studies Say
The process of disengagement is a subtle yet corrosive one, and there is no shortage of pundits who attempt to list reasons for it. Such attempts invariably reflect on the alarming trends and note the clichés that we all tend to reiterate when lamenting the tragic exodus of our youth.
For a typical summary of reasons behind the exodus, I refer you to a respected 2011 study by Charles Zech and Father William Byron, not to affirm their accuracy, but to confess my own easy acceptance of such findings, and to contrast them with my revised assessment that the answers lie in a different direction. This study—eventually titled “Empty Pews: Survey of Catholics Regarding Decrease in Mass Attendance”—boils the somewhat predictable responses down to a list of seven reasons Catholics leave church (also summarized by Merica, Zimmerman).
The trouble with such studies is that they highlight the more public and sensational concerns—scandals and particularly rigid stances or doctrines; they conclude with platitudes and clichés without clarifying why young people really drift away from Catholic worship.
Getting at the Real Reasons
Looking a little further, one will consistently find that “People are not [leaving the Church] because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better” (Reese). Read “emotional” for “spiritual,” and “desires” for “needs,” and you have a fairly accurate picture.
Offering the most accurate explanation for the exodus is Dennis Coday, editor for the National Catholic Reporter. He bases his analysis on a 2009 follow-up study to the well-known “Pew Report,” a 2007 study involving 35,000 Americans. Coday reports that commonly the decision to leave “happened over time” rather than being “prompted by a one-time event”; it’s not about the sex-abuse scandals. Catholic Researcher, Mark Gray, agrees that “The poster child of former Catholics is a disaffected teenager . . . This is about youth coming of age and not feeling connected to their faith” (qtd. in Coday).
“Matthew’s” story, as told in an essay by Kathryn Jean Lopez, epitomizes the complex emotional need to “feel connected,” which claims most casualties of the faith: Matthew grew up in a practicing Catholic household and went to Catholic schools. He was raised, as many of us were, “with the indoctrination of how the Church was infallible, perfect, the sole authority of God.” Not surprisingly, as he grew older, “he began to wonder whether this corresponded to the Church he saw.” Couple this disillusionment with the way in which another Christian faith made him “feel welcomed, valued, and affirmed,” and you have the standard recipe for disenfranchisement. It is almost pointless to speculate “how many there are who end up in ‘Bible churches’ because they find fellowship, scriptural preaching and teaching, and a sense of spirituality they had been lacking” (Lopez).
Where the Research Leaves Us
Whether or not we have children, we need to recognize this crisis among our Catholic children and young adults, because it is therefore a crisis of our Church and our Faith—for we are all one body, and we share responsibility for the faith formation of our young; likewise we all suffer when they neglect and abandon their faith. We as parents and members of the congregation have become too passive in allowing other influences to govern our children’s key decisions, downplaying them as harmless rites of passage.
First, let’s acknowledge that because we claim to be the “one true Church,” to have the answers, to be the leader in the world, we open ourselves to relentless scrutiny, and a human institution must always fall short when measured against perfect righteousness. Make no mistake, our young people bring that scrutiny to mass.
I urge you to spend a few minutes during mass to observe the congregation through the eyes of a teenager—witnessing people as the automatons our teenagers see. It looked that way to me as well, and played a key role in my wanderings. In fact, it took years for me to realize that Catholics take to heart Jesus’ teaching that “what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NAB), and in embracing this teaching, end up looking like the least devout, the least engaged, the least spiritual, while in fact they are often among the most. Add to that the criticism that our faith and worship are not “scripture-based,” and you have the basis of evangelical efforts to lead us away from our church and toward theirs.
Under these attacks, our young people easily lose sight of the mass as an exaltation of the scriptures and a multi-faceted prayer . . . and that’s as good a place as any to start a dialogue with our kids.
Defending the Faith at Home
The other day my wife and I had to explain to our fifteen-year old daughter why we weren’t allowing her to attend a weekend retreat with her friend’s evangelical Christian church group. Acknowledging that we cannot compete with the “fun” offered by other churches, we talk to her about the differences at the heart of our Faith and how those differences demand more from us, but that they define her and her faith in a vital way. We talk about what the “one true church” means; we do not pretend that all churches and all faiths are equal in God’s eyes; we try to make her aware of the motives of evangelical groups, and what challenges that will raise for her. It’s going to be an ongoing issue, one I’m sure we will continue to pray over, one that will push us to seek out guidance, one that will force us to frequently evaluate our beliefs and how we live them, and more importantly how we model those values to our children.
My wife and I do not see any point in “competing” with other faith communities or in trying to bring what works for them into our Church as so many seem inclined to. We can neither surrender our children to the more enticing activities of other churches, nor try to emulate those churches in hopes of “winning” some unspoken battle for attention. Emulation would only convey fear, whereas we need to embrace and celebrate the uniqueness of our faith instead. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to create engaging opportunities for our children and young adults, but that it’s more important to get them to look at their relationship with God and their church as something transcending the allure of fun events with friends.
Returning to the Voices of Wisdom, One Last Time
Not surprisingly, one of the Pew Report’s findings was that “The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence” (Reese; Cabaniss)—a suggestion so sensible and unassailable that we tend not to question it. But it’s also the same facile response that always emerges in such conversations, probably because it sounds so logical. The problem, as Margaret Cabaniss so cogently expresses, is that such “preferential options” have been made available for some time, and without effect; in fact, she points out, if we merely mimic what’s offered down the street, that provides even less reason to stay. She focuses instead on what makes us unique: the Eucharist. Cabaniss is also absolutely correct that “modern, ‘accessible’ liturgies, social justice outreach; and tight-knit communities” mean nothing “if we haven’t conveyed the fundamental truth at the heart of our Faith: that we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in the Eucharist at every Mass, through an unbroken 2,000-year chain stretching back to Christ Himself. Any attempt to address the attrition problem that doesn’t begin here will fail before it has begun.”
Cabaniss is not alone in this assessment. Rev. Joseph Wilson, a priest at St. Luke’s Church in Queens, New York, identifies the real problem as a “deep misunderstanding of what the Mass is about,” citing the pervasive and misguided expectation that the “liturgy is our self-expression, that it should be comfy and entertaining.” He focuses on the need to inculcate the understanding that mass should really be “not about what we do so much as about what God does” (qtd. in Lopez). In all the hand wringing over the loss of so many young Catholics, I’ve rarely seen such a pithy and vital truth.
Where Do We Go From Here
Let’s turn to solutions—what we can take away from this discussion and begin applying to our families and communities. I offer this list not only in the hopes that you will find something useful, but also for myself, as a way to clarify the task before me:
- We must first renounce the notion that our young people must be entertained more than challenged.
- We must consciously stop interpreting the departure of our young people as some kind of “rite of passage.”
- We must be wary of trying to emulate those who compete for our children by providing fun and distraction.
- We must emphasize to our children that God wants us to be serious thinkers; He does not want a cheerleader camp.
- We must talk directly with our children about the church’s complex challenge – its role in the world; the nature of its critics and the allure of other faith communities.
- We must be clear first in our understanding, second in our explanations of our faith to our children.
- We must help our children to see the difference between the Church as a faith and the church as only the sum of its flawed human representatives.
- We must constantly talk with our children about the literature, movies, music, and other media they are exposed to, and teach them to evaluate the messages that play such a subtle yet ubiquitous role in their lives.
- We must challenge our children to reflect on the tenets of their confirmation and the sacraments as a whole.
- We must pass on to them a religion that is not adulterated by the modern “cafeteria-style” approach to the Church’s doctrines and teachings.
- We must openly acknowledge with our children that our faith does demand much more than others’ and we must support them tirelessly in shouldering that burden; after all, nothing valuable comes without hard work.
- We must demonstrate for them what role spiritual emotion plays in their faith so they do not perceive it as bloodless; we must remind them that what a congregation looks like is often different from what is really going on within its members.
- Last, we need to show our children that Christ is the center of our lives, not just what we do on Sunday.
A longer version of this essay first appeared August 30, 2012 on The Devout Life blog.